Posts tagged ‘Cuba’

An Honor for John Beale

Watching WarmupThe terrific photographs in our story on Penn State baseball and the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism’s joint trip to Cuba came via Penn State photography instructor John Beale. If you missed the story, you can find it in our March/April issue.

Today, we learned that one of John’s pictures from the trip (and our story) took first place in a competition judged by the National Press Photographers Association. John’s photo, which shows a young Cuban boy on a wall watching a Penn State pitcher throwing in the bullpen, was named the best feature/single photo in the Mid-Atlantic Region for February 2016.

Congratulations, John!

Bill DiFilippo, online editor


April 14, 2016 at 11:31 am Leave a comment

Inside Our March/April 2016 Issue

MA_BlogpostWe blinked and it was the end of February, which means that our latest issue will be headed your way any day now. For our cover story, Ryan Jones talked to five Muslim students at Penn State and learned about what life is like on campus, and in America, today. The interview, “People Have to Understand Who We Are,” starts on p. 28.

You’ll also find a feature on the Nittany Lion baseball team, which traveled to Havana in November to play against professional teams from Cuba. Penn State journalism students and faculty were there to document the historic trip.

Later in the issue, “On the Right Path” shares the stories of nine alums who followed unconventional routes to land the jobs of their dreams.

Don’t miss the interview with Chewbacca—er, rather, Joonas Suotamo ’08, the former basketball player-turned-actor who played him in Star Wars: The Force Awakens—on p. 24. The magazine also includes a recap of President Barron’s recent entrepreneurial trail; a look at freshman wrestling standout Bo Nickal; and a profile on award-winning medical student Allison Cleary.

Let us know what you think of our latest issue by commenting below or emailing us at

Amy Downey, senior editor

February 23, 2016 at 2:28 pm 6 comments

Penn State Baseball Experiences Cuba

Photo via Kelsie Netzer

Photo via Kelsie Netzer

Penn State baseball had quite the Thanksgiving break, as the team became the second American squad at any level to play baseball in Cuba. It made history on the eight-day trip, as its 9-3 win over Mayabeque marked the first time that an American team has ever beat a Cuban National Series club.

“We talked all along on the lead up to this trip that I felt like it was gonna be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them,” head coach Rob Cooper said at a press conference at the Bryce Jordan Center on Wednesday. “I think it was all that and more. The people of Cuba could not have been nicer to us, more accommodating to us. The baseball experience was great, but just to really to be able to see Cuba and the history and the culture and to get to know some people down there is something that I think everyone associated with the program will take with them for the rest of their lives.”

In four games, the team compiled a 1-3 record and played in three cities – Havana, San José de las Lajas, and Matanzas. The level of competition was quite high, as Cooper pointed out that one of the teams that the Nittany Lions played is Cuba’s version of the New York Yankees.

This trip wasn’t just about playing a few baseball games. As two members of the team explained, seeing how little the people of the Pearl of the Antilles had was a culture shock.

“Seeing the look on a kid’s face when you give them a ball, a t-shirt, a hat, or even, like, a pair of spikes, like I know some of the teammates did, that was probably the best experience,” junior outfielder Nick Riotto said. Riotto also commented on how surreal it was to get off of the plane in Havana and take in the country for the first time.

“You could get a feeling for how little they really had,” junior pitcher Tim Scholly said. “A lot of them were asking for baseballs, anything, to shoes to belts to hats, anything you could possibly take, they were asking for.”

The team wasn’t the only group of Penn Staters on the trip. It was joined by eight students and three faculty members from the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism. According to the Curley Center, 10 places published pieces by students on the trip, including

If you’d like more information on the trip, stay tuned – we’ll have a lot more on it in the March/April edition of the magazine.

Bill DiFilippo, online editor

December 3, 2015 at 2:15 pm Leave a comment



I’ve been thinking a lot about yesterday’s historic announcement that the U.S. and Cuba are taking steps to normalize relations. It’s huge news, on so many levels—not the least of which is tourism.

For decades, the U.S. prohibited its citizens from traveling to Cuba except under certain circumstances, such as academic research. (Penn State Hemingway scholar Sandy Spanier ’76g, ’81g and telecommunications expert John Spicer Nichols have who’ve been to Cuba many times, for example.) More recently, the U.S. government began allowing citizens to visit under specially licensed “people to people cultural exchanges.” I went on one such exchange in 2012 via the Santa Fe Photo Workshops, and the Alumni Association has offered several trips under a similar umbrella. Our former senior editor Lori Shontz ’01, ’13g went on one such Penn State trip and wrote about it here.

Basically, the people-to-people trips have a heavy emphasis on understanding the culture—on my trip, for example, we visited a dance school and a boxing academy, and interacted a lot with Cuban photographers. On other trips you might visit a school, an orphanage, or a tobacco farm. (I remember that on our trip there was talk of visiting a cockfight, and when some of us grimaced at the thought, the Santa Fe Photo Workshops guy chastised us, saying, “You’re here to experience, and photograph, what is uniquely Cuban.” He was right—but, nevertheless, I was glad when the cockfight plans fell through.)

Yesterday’s announcement doesn’t exactly throw the doors wide open for U.S. tourists. It’s not like you’ll be able to book a flight from Dulles to Havana on USAirways anytime soon. People-to-people cultural exchanges are still the only legal way to get there. But a few things will change: For one, you’ll soon be able to take your credit cards and ATM card with you. Currently, U.S. travelers have to figure out how much money they’ll need for everything—hotel, meals, taxis, admission fees, you name it—and take that amount in cash. That’s because U.S.-issued ATM and credit cards won’t work in Cuba; just one example of the embargo. That’s changing—although Cuba is still a pretty cash-oriented society anyway.

Another change is that Cuban cigars and Cuban rum will soon be legal in the U.S. Not that anyone will be selling them in retail stores, but people who visit Cuba can now bring back up to $100 in alcohol and/or tobacco products.


In the fishing village of Cojimar, east of Havana, a sign remembers the “Cuban Five.”

The backstory leading up to yesterday’s announcement is interesting, and familiar to anyone who’s already visited Cuba. We heard a lot when we were down there about the five-decade history of the embargo, about Fidel Castro, about the prospects that Fidel’s brother Raul might take less of a hard line with the U.S., about what everyday life for Cubans is like under communism. There was talk even back then that President Obama would move to normalize relations in his second term. We also heard a lot about Alan Gross, whose imprisonment in Cuba has been a huge bone of contention with the U.S.—and likewise about the “Cuban Five,” whose imprisonment in the U.S. has been a huge bone of contention with Cuba. Yesterday, Gross and the remaining three of the Cuban Five were all released.

Cuba estimates that 100,000 U.S. citizens already visit the island nation every year, and that number is sure to go up as the restrictions are eased. It’ll surely skyrocket if the travel embargo is eventually lifted completely. And I’m not so sure that’s a good thing. There’s something very special and unspoiled about Cuba, and hordes of U.S. tourists could easily change that. It makes me want to go back—and soon, before the place is changed forever. Whatever the case, it seems certain that a new era is about to begin.

Tina Hay, editor

December 18, 2014 at 12:13 pm 6 comments

A Week in Cuba

Souvenirs that Americans can't buy.

Souvenirs that Americans can’t buy.

If I heard the question once, I heard it a zillion times. You’re going where?

It was as if everyone I talked to had gone deaf as I explained that I was headed out of the country for spring break on assignment for the magazine. I was tagging along on a trip that’s unique in the Alumni Association’s extensive offerings of travel opportunities: Cuba.

No one could quite believe it. I understood why. I’ve set a goal of traveling to all 50 states and seven continents (11 states, two continents to go), and I’ve got an extensive list of countries I want to visit. But it had never occurred to me to add Cuba to the list. It didn’t seem possible.

It’s really hard for an American to go to Cuba. The United States hasn’t had diplomatic relations with Cuba since 1961, two years after Fidel Castro took power, and it imposed an economic embargo on the country in 1962—more than 50 years ago.  Plus, the U.S. government restricts travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens, and the country is on the state sponsors of terrorism list. (Click here for a good primer on U.S.-Cuba relations from the Council on Foreign Relations.) If you go, you’re not a tourist on vacation—you are officially, by the terms of a license from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, a traveler participating in a people-to-people educational exchange. Those licenses aren’t easy to get, but the Alumni Association did it.

And believe me, the terms of the license matter. Our week in Cuba was wonderful—a life-changing experience, in some ways—but it certainly wasn’t a traditional vacation.

The 28 of us on the tour, including faculty host John Nichols, professor emeritus of communications, were on the move at 8 a.m. every day. We visited a senior home,  a maternity home, an elementary school, a dance school, a synagogue. We listened to lectures. (And, in John’s case, gave them.) We didn’t see any beaches (although we did pose for a group picture at the Bay of Pigs after exploring the nearby museum about the failed CIA-backed invasion by Cuban exiles). And we couldn’t shop for souvenirs: The U.S. government restricts how citizens can spend their money, so we could bring home only items classified as educational materials: newspapers and books, music, and art. (Not, as I explained to everyone from my brother to the pastor of my church, cigars. My pastor was joking. I think.)

Now that I’m back, I repeatedly hear another question: What was it like?

It’s a simple question, but even after two weeks of reflection, I don’t have a ready answer.

It's amazing that some of these cars still run.

It’s amazing that some of these cars still run.

Cuba was beautiful—blue skies, brightly colored buildings, fantastic old cars, music I’m still hearing in my head. (And in my office. As I’m writing this, I’m listening to an album that was one of my favorites even before the trip, Ibrahim Ferrar’s Buenos Hermanos, and a new favorite I brought home, Guajiro Natural by the late Polo Montañez.) It was photogenic, as you can see from the slide show at the end of this post.

Cuba was sad—people living in houses that were literally crumbling, and doctors and university professors working in the tourist business because they couldn’t make enough money in their original professions.

Cuba was friendly—full of passers-by wanting to try out their English (often, incredibly good; always, far better than my meager Spanish). I’ve never felt safer in a big city than I did in Havana.

Cuba was confusing—a system of two currencies, one (practically worthless) for Cubans, the other for foreigners. And it’s just hard to grasp that except for a handful of private restaurants, everything is owned by the government. We kept asking, “Who owns this restaurant?” or “Who pays for your college education?” and the Cubans kept looking at us as if we were crazy and saying, “The state.”

Most surprising of all, Cuba was familiar. I lived in Miami for about a year, and parts of the country, particularly sections of Havana, looked like my old neighborhood. Havana Vieja, the old city, which has been revitalized, had packs of tourists (from other countries, of course), and streets lined with buses—just as in any other major city. Who knew?

And Cuba was invigorating—already, I want to go back. I just need to learn some more Spanish.

As I’m sure you can tell, I’m still processing my notes and my thoughts. (Also: nearly 3,000 photos.) I’m writing a story for our July/August issue, and I’ve got a few more interviews to do. Our local guide told us on Day One that we were coming to Cuba to get answers, but that we would leave with more questions. Wow, was he right about that.

Lori Shontz, senior editor

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

March 25, 2013 at 3:18 pm 12 comments

Mourning Joe Paterno, From Afar


A writing room at Finca Vigía, Ernest Hemingway's home outside Havana.

I’ve been absent from the blog—and the magazine—for the better part of the last two weeks. I have an unusual excuse: I’ve been in Cuba.

It was, admittedly, an awkward time to go off on vacation, with Joe Paterno having just passed away and the magazine staff working in fifth gear to put together a tribute to him for our next issue.

But I had already postponed the trip once: I booked the trip months ago and was originally scheduled to go in early December, but the Sandusky scandal—and our need to scrap our Jan-Feb issue in favor of an issue devoted to the scandal—scuttled those plans and caused me to rebook for the end of January. Rescheduling the trip yet again wasn’t an option, for a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with the complicated nature of traveling to Cuba.

(Incidentally, I went there under a U.S.-approved “people-to-people cultural exchange,” which is making it possible for more and more U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba legally. Here’s a Washington Post story from last Friday about such exchanges.)

So I ended up watching from a distance, with only spotty Internet access, as the Penn State family mourned Paterno’s death. I wasn’t able to watch the memorial service at all—though I’m told that (more…)

February 6, 2012 at 5:35 pm 5 comments

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